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Agnieszka Tennant

Counting (Helping) Hands

A conversation with Ram Cnaan

Less than a year ago, America's religious congregations received a stunning compliment. It came from the desk of a secular Jew frequently quoted by John DiIulio.

He is Israeli-born Ram A. Cnaan, professor of social work and founding director of the Program for the Study of Organized Religion and Social Work at University of Pennsylvania.

Cnaan first drew attention to the social involvement of congregations in The Newer Deal: Social Work and Religion in Partnership (Columbia Univ. Press, 1999). Last year, he and his fellow researchers published The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare (New York Univ. Press), which is reviewed on this page. Agnieszka Tennant talked with Cnaan about his findings.

What gave you the eyes for the invisible caring hand?

In Israel there were no independent religious organizations providing services. In fact, the religious organizations there are not doing much. In the United States, they do more. When I found that here, the religious community is highly involved in social services, I realized that there is very little about it in the professional literature or in training materials. So I started looking into why. This was the beginning of my journey.

There are studies similar to yours. Mark Chaves from the University of Arizona studied a sample of more than a thousand congregations, and then there was another study from Hartford Institute for Religious Research. What sets your study of congregations apart from the other ones?

Those other studies are not coming from social work. They come from sociology. Both Carl Dudley at Hartford and Mark Chaves in Arizona are sociologists. The conceptual difference is that I or one of my assistants interviewed face-to-face every congregation in my study. The others collected data from intermediaries. In the case of the Hartford study, Dudley and his team got reports from denominations and other organizations. They didn't collect the data themselves. On the other hand, they ...

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